No. 483.
Mr. Vidal to Mr. Hunter.

No. 26.]

Sir: The slave-trade between the regency of Tripoli and Constantinople has always been a flourishing branch of exportation for this place; but lately, owing to the facility of travel, afforded by the creation of numerous lines of steamers running between the British island of Malta and the Turkish capital, and the establishment of three other [Page 1142] lines plying between that island and Tripoli, that trade has received a new impetus.

Shortly after my arrival at this post my attention was called to that infamous trade; but, in consequence of the difficulty every one experiences in obtaining reliable information from the Tripolitan custom-house on that subject, as well as the secrecy in which the slave-trade is carried on, it was for a long time quite impossible for me to send you any details on that subject. I am now happy to say that, thanks to a journey I made lately to Malta, and to a flying visit, my interpreter made to the same island, I am in a position to give you information which you may receive with interest.

The slaves exported from Tripoli come from that undefined region which stretches south of the Bachalick of Fezzan and the town of Murzuk, situated a little north of the 26th northern parallel. They speak a language which but few persons understand on the coast of Barbary; and mostly follow the Mussulman religion, with a considerable mixture of heathenish practices and savage superstitions. They greatly differ from the Guinea negroes whose type is so familiar to us. They are not of a shiny dark hue like the negroes of the New World, but of a very somber black complexion, very much in harmony with their unilluminated souls. They very seldom laugh; never smile; and their women can squat together for hours at a time without feeling the least inclination to chatter. Most of them are tall, slender, with remarkably meager limbs; and their women, even when they are past thirty years of age, show no tendency to obesity, as is the case with the Louisiana black women.

One who has not lived in Africa can have no exact idea of the extreme poverty, which probably from the first days of creation never ceased to scourge the aboriginal populations of that continent. Human beings who have the good luck to get plenty to eat once a week, are as few in Africa as those who go twenty-four hours without enjoying a full meal are scarce in America. Last winter, here in Tripoli, a few miles only from Malta and Sicily, people were literally dying with starvation on the public roads and near the gates of the city. There were a number of women and children who used to come every morning to our consulate, to receive a little piece of money, or small loaves of bran bread, which I used to have made on purpose for them, so that with the same expense I could relieve the pangs of a greater number. In the course of the season, I left the city, and when I came back and inquired for my beggars, judge of the shock that I received when I heard that all of them were dead. They were about thirty or forty. During that cruel winter it often happened that families from the interior, which had come to this famine-stricken country with a hope of finding a better place than their yet more cursed native sands, would offer me for sale their children at a price varying from six to fifteen dollars. I had then occasion to notice that they were more readily disposed to part with their girls than their sons. “We know,” they would tell me, “that you will take good care of them; while, if they remain with us, they will surely starve with cold and hunger; it is only a question of hours. Moreover, the girls have to become slaves, sooner or later, of their husbands or some one else. If you buy them now, with the money they will fetch we will all live till we can find in the desert grass good to eat.”

It is my opinion that misery alone and not war drives most young men into slavery; as for the slaves of the other sex there is very little difference, as far as condition, happiness, and freedom are concerned, [Page 1143] between the poor negro girl who is bought and resold four or five times ere she finds a home in Constantinople, and the fairest Caucasian wife of a Turkish high dignitary.

Here, in Tripoli, an adult girl, say from twelve to sixteen years of age, can fetch from twenty-four to forty dollars; of course, in their native country they will be considerably cheaper, for it takes forty days to go and come back from Tripoli to Fezzan. As the blacks are not considered to be subject to the Tripolitan government, while the large tract of Fezzan is a province of this regency, I conclude that they come from a more distant oasis. When we take in account the expense, pain, and risk incurred by the traders who import those wretched creatures across such a vast desert, we may well suppose that the first price of the latter did not amount to more than a silver piece of money for each one; may be a handful of dried dates, or three or four yards of cheap calico.

A few years ago the exportation of slaves from the coast of Barbary was not attended without difficulties and great outlay of money, on account of the scarcity of vessels trading between this regency and the Turkish empire. But nowadays, thanks to the many regular lines of steamers, which run regularly between Malta and Constantinople, that trade has received lately a great impetus. There are three lines of steamers connecting Tripoli with the Island of Malta; one belonging to British subjects, and the two other ones to Turks. The price of a ticket for third-class passengers on board those steamers varies from $2.50 to $5. There is not on those vessels the least pretext of accommodation for passengers of that class, and very little indeed for the more favored ones. Men, women, children, either Christian, Jewish, or Moslem, clean or unclean, sick or in good health, are huddled together on a small and dirty deck, exposed night and day, without any protection, to the chilly northern winds of the winter or the fierce rays of our African sun. The journey lasts from twenty-six to forty-eight hours.

My last trip to Malta was on board the Raffaele, a diminutive British steamer, on whose deck were crowded about one hundred passengers, thirty of whom were evidently slaves. When we cast anchor in the port of Valletta, an officer, whom I believe to be connected with the police department, came on board, and after perusing the list of passengers and their passports, commenced his examination of the black women. I must say that if the authorities of the island had wished to make a farce of the performance of a serious duty, they would have good reason to congratulate themselves on the selection of that official in this case. In the first place, not considering that these poor girls think it the greatest shame to show their faces to a man, and particularly to a Christian, he would squat to their level, as they were lying down on deck, look them boldly in the face, and ask them in a language they could not understand whether they had left their country freely, and would not rather go back to it? Of course most of them were too much frightened to answer, and those few who did proffer an answer, through an Arabian passenger, repeated merely the words told them by their companions. For the moment they had but one wish; it was to get rid as soon as possible, of that obtrusive, whiskered Nazareen, who was frightening them with his looks as much as with his swagger. As soon as those questions were asked, pro forma, eight or nine times in the crowd, the officer authorized all passengers to go ashore, and the only obstacle which might be thrown in the way of those human flesh importers was thus easily overcome.

[Page 1144]

There are in Malta two or three inns kept by African Jews, and specially devoted to Mussulman and Hebrew travelers, who consider it a great contamination to eat anything cooked with lard, or the meat of an animal killed by a Christian. Those inn-keepers know by a flag hoisted on the top of the cupola of the governor’s palace when a steamer from the coast of Barbary is in sight. They hasten to the fort, take a boat, and when the steamer is in and the passengers allowed to land, they offer their services to those among the crowd whom their dresses show to be children of Abraham, or followers of Mohamet. The slave women hide their faces in their blankets; are taken down to one of the boats and brought to one of these public houses, where they are kept in a room, being very seldom allowed to go out about the city, until all arrangements are concluded to resume their journey to Constantinople. They may thus spend two or three days, a week even, in Malta without any one of the inhabitants ever interfering or having an opportunity to interfere with them; and, in the mean time, they may, and probably do, pass from the hands of one trader to those of another exporter.

* * * * * * *

There are six or seven lines of steamships, all of them British but one, which is Russian, running between Malta and Constantinople. The slave drovers do not find any difficulty to send their chattels to the end of their journey by one of those steamers. I was informed that the black girls imported from Tripoli to Turkey are sold, on the average, for two hundred dollars, leaving thus to the importer a very handsome margin for profit, after paying all expense. * * *

I am, &c.,